‘The “So Called” Emerging Black Artist’ is a group exhibition featuring three prominent South African artists; Professor Pitika Ntuli, Mbongeni Buthelezi and Vusi Mfupi at the Constitution Hill, Hillbrow Johannesburg. Curated by Gaisang Sathekge, this well-timed exhibition questions the ‘perpetual emergence’ of black artists in art history by pulling together artists who work within the recycling process to reinterpret discarded objects in order to give them a new life and meaning. Khehla Chepape Makgato visited the exhibition and spoke with the curator and artists involved.
According to Sathekge, this group show “addresses the way black artists, within art historical canon, have been stereotyped and their subject matter and style understood only within the framework of terminology such as township art or ‘folk-art’ while their white counterparts dominated and continue to dominate the industry economically.” The resulting exhibition is an account of the artistic standards used in categorising artists based on race and class while addressing the gaps that exist therein.
Walking through the corridors of the Old Fort Mess Hall at Constitution Hill (home to the South African Constitutional Court) one is met by Professor Pitika Ntuli’s large crowd of protesters, sculpted ghosts in human form. Made from fragments of the discarded wreckage of industrial society, their provocative presence is immersive. Ntuli’s sculptures represent the mineworkers mowed down by the state police force on the fateful day of 16 August 2012, when mineworkers were killed fighting for their rights to a wage increase in what is now known as the “Marikana Massacre.” The towering figure in a green blanket represents Mgcineni Noki, affectionately known to his co-workers as ‘Mambush.’ Although at the time his identity was not known, ‘Mambush’ was a notable leader known only by the green blanket he wore. He featured prominently in TV footage leading up to the shooting of 34 miners at Marikana and was killed in the crossfire.
Made from wheelbarrows, spanners, drains grids, spades and forks, hoes and picks, welded car parts and twisted corrugated iron sheets, Ntuli’s work is an incantation of the workers’ sweat, blood and tears– echoing a betrayed dream in South Africa’s Freedom Charter: ‘The People Shall Share in the Country’s Wealth’ and ‘There Shall be Work and Security’.
On the far right hand you notice what looks like a stage where union leaders or executives are in a press conference. Instead of seeing a human figure on stage as expected, there’s a dove, seemingly in flight with a flower in its beak. The smaller human figures are depicted as weak interpreters or spin-doctors. “The stage is a metaphor for a John Vorster prison building,” says Professor Ntuli on the opening night of the show. The Vorster prison is a symbolic monument of a justice system that favours only the black elites and rich whites. As the ANC Deputy Secretary Jessie Duarte puts it, the police station was a “true embodiment of the violence of the apartheid system.” This violence continues to haunt us, hinting that we remain an old state dressed in the new clothes of ‘DEMOCRACY’.
“To sculpt is to create a work of art by a series of destructions – violent acts as chisels cut through wood or stone; angle grinders slash through bones; and an electric saw searing through and massacring forms – driven by a desire to leave only one single form as the ultimate!” Ntuli once said about his work.
Inside the Old Fort Prison Complex, where many of South Africa’s political activists, including Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Walter Sisulu were detained, the exhibition continues with Mbongeni Buthelezi’s large works made from discarded plastic bags and works made from old pages of magazines by Vusi Mfupi.
What was once a place of injustice and ruthlessness now exudes the triumph of the human spirit. However, the struggle for liberation has not ended with the Sisulus and Sobukwes but continues with the generations that succeed them. Mfupi retells the stories of daily struggle that poor South Africans – both black and white – face at traffic lights as they beg for coins from passing drivers. His work speaks of fellow citizens, homeless wanderers forced to the streets. Mfupi’s work also depicts the illegal boarder crossings of foreign nationals into the country, especially at The Beitbridge Border between Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Talking to the artists in ‘The “So Called” Black Emerging Artist,’ I am struck by the imperative to not categorise the work of art based on race or educational background. Many of the self-taught black artists in South Africa came to be as a result of colonialism or phenomena related to it. Renowned South African artist Dr. David Koloane sheds some light on why black artists forever ‘emerging.’ “The self-taught image used by white reviewers referred more to black African practitioners more than it applied to white artists, most of whom were formally trained and have acquired tertiary level education.”
Recycling as an art medium, like the African ancient oral history, expresses the collective soul, the way of thinking, the traditions and values of a people through the eyes and philosophies of the artists presented in ‘The “So Called” Emerging Black Artist.’ As Mbongeni puts it “Professor Ntuli’s pieces reminded me of same era in terms of the execution and the approach in his handling of materials in negotiating his forms. It is a typical example of how we black artists can at times respond to the materials available at our disposal.”
Throughout history, art has remained a powerful platform for social expression and provided society with a window through which to view and assess communities. The role of art to communicate the realities of life must not be understated by simply boxing artists into the terms that suit the speaker.
Khehla Chepape Makgato is a Johannesburg-based independent artist and arts writer for ARTsouthAFRICA.
In compiling this article, Makgato conducted short Q&As with the curator, Gaisang Sathekge, and two of the artists, Mbongeni Buthelezi and Vusi Mfupi. Their responses follow below.
Khehla Chepape Makgato: How does the work of the artists you have selected “critique… the aesthetic standards used in categorising artists based on race and class”?
Gaisang Sathekge: These are black artists using medium that is synonymous with ‘craft’ according to Western standards. Recycling found objects such as plastic, paper and metal was one of the more economical ways of making art, especially with less advantaged artists from the townships. However, Pitika Ntuli and Mbongeni Buthelezi have managed to transcend those stereotypes by using found objects in innovative ways and applying contemporary stylistic features. Their work can be appreciated for its aesthetic value as opposed to the functionality of the object.
Specifically from a South African perspective, aren’t we tired of talking about it?
Gaisang Sathekge: We are certainly not tired of addressing the issue because we have not been addressing it at all. Yes, we talk about it behind closed doors or over drinks on a Thursday evening at exhibition openings etc. but we certainly do not have formal critical debates to engage more deeply with the problem. In fact, our silence is a perpetuation of the cultural violence against black artists. We are allowing the injustice to continue by not having these very fundamental conversations. We can never grow tired of talking about the legacy that apartheid and colonialism has left behind and how those ideas still impact on our current societies.
One might say that being labelled an “emerging black artist” carries a number of advantages – given the dramatic rise in popularity of contemporary art from Africa – although stereotyping continues to be hugely problematic. How can South African artists avoid bad historical precedents and pigeonholing from dictating their subject matter and style, while still benefiting from the current global trend in collecting work by ‘black’ or ‘African’ artists?
Mbongeni Buthelezi: I find this topic very interesting. I believe these are some of the issues that need to be challenged with the view to get to the core of the matter and its original meaning.
I am not content with the fact that being labelled an “Emerging Artist” comes with any inherent advantages. I would like to start by applauding those fellow artists, past and present, who continued with their form of artistic expression even though it was given names like ‘township art’, ‘resistance art’, ‘protest art’, craft and so on. One must also remember that these terms are mostly applied to artists who depict subject matters like township scenes, who work figuratively etc.
At some point in the late eighties there was something called “The Peoples Park.” These were small corner street parks that were created by artists collaborating with ordinary people in the townships during the struggle years against apartheid. In these parks you could find some amazing sculptures and mural paintings that were created to beautify the spaces that were normally used as dumping sites. These amazing sculptures and mural paintings were never recognised as artworks simply because they were initiatives that were driven by black people with the view to improve their lives. These artists were mainly using discarded materials or found objects that were mostly collected from the dumping sites, ranging from old wheelbarrows, corrugated iron sheets, tree branches, plastics, rubber tyres, scrap metal etc.
These titles – ‘township art’, ‘resistance art’, ‘protest art’ – were aimed at undermining certain groups of people and their creative abilities, to make them feel less important for producing art that has no value compared to their white counterparts. Strangely though, the kinds of art that were produced by whites artists always had or still have more progressive titles borrowed from European Movements – expressionism, realism, contemporary art and so forth.
I believe a lot of opportunities and important parts of our history were lost – for example, the work of artists in the “Peoples Parks” – simply because these artists were sidelined with no support in terms of knowledge and understanding. A lot of great art, particularly sculptures, eventually got damaged as the time went by. These works should have been preserved somehow as part of our history in museums and exhibited in galleries for the next generations.
In future these occurrences can be avoided if artists come together and discuss and share some of these issues. Above all, as artists, we need to start believing in our work and not depend entirely on galleries to determine what is art and what not. We don’t only need to think out of the box but rather get rid of the box itself for us to be able to master our own destinies. Art will remain art and must remain without giving names with the purpose to undermine ones creativity and talent.
Vusi Mfuphi: My work has taken me to four continents and I have appeared in numerous exhibitions around the globe and taken several commissions. Today I have a studio and collage remains my medium of choice. Not only does the concept of recycling excite me, but working with magazines allows me to express and explore my delight in colour. Where most painters simply mix the hue they need, I am restricted to what is available.
My subject matter depicts life in South Africa. I regard myself as a social artist; I’m not a political commentator, I always do stuff that people can relate to. My focus now is to discover my own culture, that’s an interest fuelled by my travels overseas, and I want to transmit that to my audience.
My work portrays celebration of youth and mobility; it deals with human life matters that affect people globally. Each time I paint murals with school children, we look into the issues that affect the youth, issues like language, teenage pregnancy, drugs and alcohol and also HIV/AIDS. Materials like collage, burnt newspaper, found objects and pigments combine to create an emotive response to my daily context, a response that reflects the direct South African surroundings through physical materials and the generated energy of the artworks. The result is an authentic visual language that supports the notion of wall mounted art as well as raises our awareness of intrinsic aesthetic qualities of mundane materials. I want to encourage young people to be creative, you don’t need to just paint things, and you can use other raw materials to be creative too.
I got involved in a public art initiative to shape the look and feel of the new Metro Mall and Faraday development, a flagship project for inner city renewal in Bree Street and Faraday Taxi rank. In 2004, I was once more fortunate enough to be selected to represent my beloved South Africa in Madeira, Portugal to paint a 2,5m high by 32m long mural that formed part of South Africa’s 10 years of democracy across the globe. Again in 2005 I was part of the 25 artists around the country who went to Malaysia for the Delphic Games. In 2006 we flew to Cape Town to attend the VANSA Conference that was attended by the big shorts of the art world. In 2008 I went to Scotland where we gathered as artists from all the Room 13 around the world. It was the first International summer schools for all the Room 13 artists. The aim was to grow this project so that it reaches all those disadvantaged schools and to instil the love of the arts to our communities. In 2012, I went to Argentina for a solo exhibition invited by the South African Embassy.
As we will always say whenever we pray, ‘Our Father who ART in Heaven’; It is my duty as an artist to get people involved in art, especially the young ones. I have rendered my services to more than 25 schools around Gauteng teaching art and painting murals with the learners. South Africa is in need of creative, skilled and self-empowered citizens, Architects, Designers, Visual Artists, Musicians, Performing Arts and Theatre practitioners. As artists we need studios so that we can run our business professionally. In this way the dreams and aspiration of emerging artists can be realised.